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Metta and the divine

flowerI believe that we are all aware of only a tiny part of ourselves. The conscious part of ourselves is just the tip of the iceberg, and the bulk of ourselves is beneath the waves. Part of that unconscious is childish and even pretty nasty at times.

But the deepest parts have a wisdom that often we can only guess at. Our conscious minds rarely pick up on that wisdom, although sometimes we can in dreams or when we’re particularly intuitive, i.e. when the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious are particularly permeable.

There are times when we experience our wiser deep subconscious, but because we don’t experience it as “us”, we experience it as “other.” So we may feel a kind, loving, wise presence, or even have a vision or hear a guiding voice. I think of such experiences as being experiences of “the divine”.

One of my students described such an experience when she said:

“When I was describing the experience I had about a week ago where I felt a strong benevolent presence, you mentioned that the feeling of metta can be external or internal. That really struck me, because at the time I didn’t really express how external the feeling was. It really felt as if there was a very strong presence in front of me generating a deep sense of compassion, comfort and love.

“To be honest, I thought to myself that I was in the presence of God. I thought that there wouldn’t be much place for this sort of experience in Buddhist thought, so I wasn’t sure what to make of it, although I certainly didn’t want to dismiss it.”

This kind of experience is not uncommon in meditation. In fact it forms the basis of some kinds of meditation practice. Buddhist visualization practices are an attempt to integrate qualities of wisdom, compassion, and unobstructed energy through contemplation of symbolic forms that in some way correspond to those qualities (which are already present in us, but are as yet unrealized).

So in visualizing the compassionate form of a Buddha image we’re really calling to mind our own potential compassion and thereby creating a channel from the unconscious to the conscious. Eventually a sort of integration can take place, so that the meditator and the visualized figure merge. So in this kind of practice it’s very common indeed to feel a sense of metta or other blessings flowing from “outside” oneself.

The myth of “inside” and “outside”

In Buddhism, the distinctions that we make between inner and outer have no real validity. That distinction is just a convenient fiction that allows us to make some kind of sense of our lives (although it’s not always a very accurate sense). We can see this if we reflect on the common experience of falling in and out love. When you fall in love with someone, you think they’re wonderful. Sometimes it all works out, but other times we discover they weren’t the person we thought they were, and then we fall – or even plummet – out of love with them. They no longer seem to have all those wonderful qualities that we imagined they had.

So where were those qualities all along? What were we attracted to? Obviously, in such cases, our attraction wasn’t entirely for the other person but for some unconscious part of ourselves that we imagined was in them. We’d confused something that was inside ourselves with something that was outside ourselves.

Our inner and outer worlds actually exist in interdependence, not as separate realities. Change one, and you change the other. So the experience of metta may be neither internal nor external, nor both, nor is it something other than internal or external. It’s really utterly indefinable. The important thing is that it works. When I think in terms of “the divine”, I don’t assume that such experiences of an external source of metta are emanating from a deity. I use this term to suggest a sense of mystery – a sense of the way in which we can experience ourselves as “other”, and the way in which we can connect with those hidden forces that inhabit our depths.

If this kind of experience happens to you, you will probably categorize it in terms of your existing belief system. Some people, experiencing an external sense of metta, will assume that this is an experience of God, and such descriptions can certainly bring a deeper sense of significance and meaning to your meditation practice. On the other hand, you may wish just to accept these blessings and to reflect on the fact that we really know next to nothing about ourselves and about the universe that we live in.

You may wish to just experience and accept the mysterious and ineffable nature of these experiences, and to recognize that you are coming to a fuller appreciation of the nature of Reality.

Comments

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Comment from Maria
Time: September 2, 2008, 11:23 am

I meditate and sometimes I see things like a dream but I’m awake, it could be the fact of my imaginagion but one of my first images I saw was a monk on a yellow robe sat dawn on the top of a white mountain, around him I could only see white high mountains. Before every time I meditate I tried to contact him. Since he was meditating I only tried to be close to him but once I asked him what to do. He took me to the other side and we cross together without any bridge. He told me go inside the mountain and found the light. I went inside and everything was totally dark but I had the sensation that I had to go down.
Pls I like somebody to help me with the images sometimes I see. I really practise alone.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 3, 2008, 7:00 am

Hi Maria,

You’re right to say that this imagery is your imagination, but it sounds as if you think that something being in your imagination devalues the experience. Sometimes in meditation we receive communications from our unconscious, much as we do when we’re dreaming, and just as with dreams these communications can be powerful and meaningful.

The symbolism in your image seems quite clear — your unconscious wisdom is inviting you to learn more about it. I’ve experienced similar imagery myself.

I’d suggest that you don’t try to “make something happen” with this imagery. That you don’t try, for example, to make the monk reappear. Sometimes these images come and sometimes they don’t. That the images don’t appear is not a sign that nothing is happening, because images are just one way for the mind to function. The process of integration that the image represents can carry on in meditation without the image appearing.

So enjoy such imagery when it appears, but don’t get too caught up in it or be upset when it’s not present.

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Comment from Maria
Time: September 8, 2008, 1:50 pm

Thank you very much for your feedback I truly appreciate it. There are many kind of images that come to my mind in meditation sometimes beautiful landscapes, sometimes snow landscapes, deep oceans, black rivers, caves and so fort. Even I see faces I’ve never seen in my life, like a dream is true but more colourful. It would be very long to explain each of them. Another thing, I’ve been having some pain on my left leg that sometimes stopped me in my meditation practise but this week those pains started to go away. so I keep longer. However, If meditation is a way to relax the mind why when I seldon reach to get very deep in my practise, I finished very tired and I need to rest after that as if it takes me a time to recovery. I’m not forcing my mind because it’s very easy for me to be relaxed and with no thoughts. Although, of course, the images could be a sort of. Finally, concerning the monk it was a period I saw him many many times, even when I was conscious I kept him in my mind and It worked like a motivation to keep the practise.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 8, 2008, 2:04 pm

These images — like the monk — are really parts of ourselves, although not of our usual conscious selves. I’ve sometimes had recurring imagery like that, and my meditation has been incomplete unless I’ve made contact with the recurring figure.

I can’t tell you why you feel tired after your practice. In theory practice is refreshing and energizing, but people respond differently. The simplest and commonest reason for people feeling tired during meditation is because they’re tired to start with, but aren’t in touch with that tiredness. When they stop “going stuff” and simply experience themselves the tiredness hits them in the face, often with sleepiness as a result. But it could be something else.

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